With a strengthened domestic defense industry, the Turkish military, NATO's second largest, is flexing its muscle on the international stage.
The Turkish Republic, against remarkable odds, arose from the crucible of war. And while it long implemented founder Atatürk’s principle of peace at home and peace in the world, the turbulent reality of regional politics and multi-dimensional conflicts has presaged a greater role for the military in the 21st century.
The Power of Proxy For almost a decade, Turkey has been actively embroiled in the horror across its Syrian border, a war indirectly fought by the world’s major powers. Roughly 3 million Syrian refugees have escaped to Turkey since the conflict. Meanwhile, traffic in the opposite direction has been both humanitarian and military, as Turkey opposes the forces of President Assad and battles terrorist groups with their own agenda on Turkish soil.
Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean Turkey, like Greece, a NATO member since 1952, has seen perennial friction with its western neighbor. Divided Cyprus aside, the pilots of both air forces have regularly buzzed each other for years. Most recently, Greece seized a Tanzanian-flagged ship bound for Libya bearing materials used in the production of explosives that had been loaded in the Turkish ports of Mersin and Iskenderun. And here we have a second proxy war, this time on African soil, pertaining to Turkey’s status in the eastern Mediterranean. The civil war plaguing Libya since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 features one bloc comprising Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Israel backing General Khalifa Haftar, who seeks to overthrow the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). The other bloc comprises Turkey and Qatar. On May 18, 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan declared utmost support for the Tripoli-based Islamist administration of Fayez al-Sarraj. No hollow words, as on May 18 Turkey sent a shipment of weapons and armored vehicles to Islamist militias fighting the Libyan National Army (LNA). This continues to cause shock waves in neighboring Egypt, whose government is also at odds with Ankara’s foreign policy. In brief, Greece argues that international waters by Libya are its own territory, which Ankara seeks to counterbalance by a foothold in that country. Turkey’s concern is to avoid curbed regional authority notably related to the EU-recognized state of Cyprus. It also explains Ankara’s recent EU-related dispute due to Turkey’s hydrocarbon exploration off the coast of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which the EU does not recognize.
The March for Self-Sufficiency The military industrial complex is a vital part of Turkey’s broader ambitions for 2023, the republic’s centenary, and ambitions to rank among the world’s top-10 economies. While on opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, in July realpolitik led to Turkey’s receipt of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system. Washington’s consequent suspension of Turkey’s participation in the F35 project underscored Ankara’s determination for weapons self-sufficiency. Indeed, Turkey is increasingly a military producer in its own right, and according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute data (SIPRI) data, export units of 244 in 2017 were up more than threefold since 2010. A long and growing array of indigenous weaponry and equipment, to name but a few, includes the Bayraktar TB2 drone, in service since 2014 notably in Syria; the T-155 Fırtına, a self-propelled howitzer with a striking distance of 40km and employed in 2017’s Operation Olive Branch; and the T-129 ATAK helicopter and T-122 Multiple Barrel Rocket Launcher (MRBL). In a concerted effort, then, local public and private institutions in the military ecosystem such as Turkish Aerospace Industries and Roketsan continue to develop local content befitting Turkish aspirations on land, air, and sea.